The last time the Boston Celtics were obviously in the middle of a rebuild, the team's superstar did something really interesting. Instead of looking for greener pastures and using free agency as a trade cudgel, he committed long-term to Boston, eventually setting up a championship run. Now we wonder if it will happen again.
That last superstar was Paul Pierce in 2006. Coming off of a 33-win season, Pierce had two years until free agency and little hope for a quick rebound in Boston. But instead of asking for a trade or threatening to leave in '08, Pierce signed a massive contract extension worth $60 million over three years. His immediate reward for loyalty to the Celtics: a horrifying 24-58 season that was much worse than that record indicates.
After the Celtics struck out in the lottery, missing out on a top-two pick that could have been Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, Boston GM Danny Ainge leveraged a few young assets to bring in Ray Allen and then Kevin Garnett. The rest is history. Pierce stuck with a bad team when many other superstars would have chased a ring elsewhere and he was rewarded with a title and two East banners before getting traded in 2013. Taking the guaranteed money and waiting out the rebuild worked.
Despite Pierce's example, stars still look to exit when the rebuild arrives. Such is the case with Boston's current star, Rajon Rondo. Maybe. Jackie MacMullan said Rondo wants out during an off-the-cuff recorded conversation last week, and Jackie Mac is never wrong when it comes to the Celtics. But everyone is denying it and the video during which MacMullan shares the scoop has been yanked.
If Rondo really doesn't want out, there's precedent in Boston. But there's also more urgency here. In 2006, Pierce still had two years until free agency. Rondo can become a free agent in one year. If Ainge doesn't get Rondo to sign on to an extension -- if that's even being offered -- the All-Star point guard could be lost for nothing in 10 months. That's a risk for the Celtics. Meanwhile, Boston looks to have another rough season, unless Ainge has a major trade to get Rondo help in the cards. (There are no such rumors: the C's struck out on Kevin Love despite some heavy early flirtation.)
Rondo has a strong sense of Celtics lore and his place in it. He could commit to Boston (now or in a year) and remove a lot of the pressure from Ainge's lap, much as Pierce did in '06. But given that Boston's rebuild timeline will go into 2015 or beyond, it'd be totally understandable if Rondo, a fierce competitor who didn't seem to have much fun losing last year, wasn't on board.
There's one more key difference: while Pierce was an obvious max player in '06, Rondo is not. He's an atypical star in that he doesn't really shoot well or score much. He just does everything else incredibly well. How many teams would max out Rondo? Would Boston max out Rondo? He's due to make $12.9 million this season, which is 46 percent under his maximum allowable salary. How high is Ainge willing to go in an extension or in free agency next year? Will other teams go higher?
Again, the urgency of Rondo's pending free agency and the Celtics' relative lack of assets make this situation a little different than what Pierce and Boston faced in '06. One interesting consequence of NBA franchisees' push for shorter maximum lengths on player contracts is that this will happen more frequently, as I wrote about in 2013.
As a relevant postscript to that piece focused on LaMarcus Aldridge, the team in question busted its tail to end its rebuild and convince the star to buy in long-term. That does not seem to be an immediate option for Boston, but we'll see. Ainge has pulled off the seemingly impossible before.